Archive for the Momofuku Ko (NYC) Category

Momofuku Ko (NYC

Posted in Momofuku Ko (NYC) on August 13, 2010 by jaydel818

163 First Avenue (between 10th and 11th Streets)
New York, NY 10003

5 Second Summary:
Price Range- Pricing varies based on the meal and market availability.  Lunch costs more than dinner.  At the time of posting, lunch was $175.  Dinner was $125.  Our 15ish-course meal was $250 per person with tax, tip, and 1 drink.
Ambiance- Modern, open-kitchen-industrial
Cuisine- New American
Hits- The open kitchen and ability to talk to chefs is a neat innovation.
Misses- Despite its democratic reservation system, Ko is totally full of itself.  Expect some serious ‘tude.

“It should be somewhere along here.  Keep your eyes open,” my friend Jesse is saying as we head down First Avenue.  “I read that you can walk right by it and totally miss it.”

And we almost do just that… until I see the Momofuku Group’s signature peach amid what looks like a seriously rusted grating.  This nondescript entrance hardly befits the hullaballoo surrounding celebrity chef David Chang.  Entering, however, is a whole other story.  The sushi bar concept is transformed into a small kitchen space opened up to the patrons and separated by a butcher block counter.  It’s an immaculate space of light woods and industrial metals.  Only ten diners can be served during each seating.

The only reason I even got to eat at Ko was because Jesse had luckily scored an unlikely reservation.  His wife, Jessica, unable to go, very generously nominated me to take her place.  Given the Ko-hype, who knew when I’d get this opportunity again? I couldn’t turn it down.

David Chang’s democratically-intended (read: ridiculously-hard-to-get) reservation system grants no special favors to the critics and the food elite.  Rumor has it that his own parents waited a year to get reservations “in the system.”  This bold move is part of the mystique that has earned him such rockstar status.  If you’re interested in the food details, by all means, read on.  If you want the Readers’ Digest version, here it is.  David Chang’s food bespeaks an attitude of satisfying one’s own artistic vision.  It says, “I am an artist.  This is what I make.  If you don’t like it, f*ck you.  I don’t make it to please you.”  My impression was confirmed when I later read about Chang in Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw, which paints the picture of a young, stubborn chef who basically just keeps stepping in sh*t.  Like some miraculous golden child, no matter what he does to sabotage his own success and piss people off, Chang continues to succeed.  While I completely respect that he is true to himself and his own culinary sensibility, I can’t help but wonder how long New York, which eats young chefs alive, will put up with Chang’s bullsh*t.  Ultimately, the culinary industry is about hospitality and pleasing people.  Nothing about this menu was pleasing. To me, it felt harsh and experimental, sometimes even jarring and discordant.  I left feeling like someone had played a $250 trick on me.  Once again, I couldn’t help but compare the meal to Chicago’s Alinea.  Although comparing price points in different cities is like apples and oranges, I walked out of Chef Grant Achatz’s restaurant on clouds.  Every dish was love, like he was sharing some secret with me.  Chang’s dishes weren’t love at all.  They were technical and cold.  Although I’m glad for the experience, I walked out feeling like the little boy in the Chinese folktale who points out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

Back to the story:

“Any food allergies?” our surly chef, replete with hipster glasses, grunts.

Watching him prepare a Washington state oyster with a small oyster stout accompaniment, I joke, “I am allergic to shellfish, but I’m always willing to test the limits of that allergy.”


Not even a smile.

I turn to Jesse.  “I may skip the oyster, but let me know how it is.”

“Clean,” he purrs.  “I think that’s the cleanest oyster I’ve ever had.  The oyster stout really tastes like oyster too.”

Three seats over, closest to the wall, our fellow patrons have a pretty amicable, sociable chef who’s chatting it up with them.  Damn, I think. We should’ve gotten here earlier instead of killing time walking around the Union Square Green Market.

I snap my first and only picture of the “table” set-up (see below) before being notified by the hostess that photos aren’t allowed.  I’m genuinely confused.  Huh??? Who doesn’t allow photos?

I order a glass of 2008 Jean Paul Picard Sancerre to take the edge off the weird rules and Chef Grumpy McGrumpster, who serves a chilled pea soup with pickled rhubarb, and Mexican cucumber.  It’s simultaneously sweet, salty, creamy, and tart.

“I’ve never been able to not take pictures,” I confide in Jesse.  “It’s such a big part of how I remember each dish.”

He looks at my little black notebook, “What are you going to do?”

I sigh and resign myself to the inevitable, whip out my pen, and start sketching.

On a flat, black, oval plate, we get two small pieces of house made onion sourdough, which actually looks like onions, with beechmast flowers and sea salt.  As far as I can tell, beechmast flowers grow alongside beech nuts or beech seeds (also called beech mast and commonly used in oils), which are produced by -you guessed it- beech trees.  In the middle of the plate are two crisp mushroom chips, and on the right are two curls (kind-of like small, thin cannoli shells) filled with a creamy, red potato puree (“potato souflee”) and hackleback (sturgeon) caviar.  When we ask, Grumpy McGrumpster tells us that the potato shells are made by cooking potatoes slices in super-low-heat oil (about 300 degrees), taking them out, and then dropping them into 400 degree oil to make the potato curl up.  The caviar is black and glossy and a string of other adjectives including dry, strong, nutty, and briny.  I want to ask where it’s from but am pretty intimidated by Grumpy McGrumpster.  I could also swear he said the onions were “fingerling onions” but can’t be sure.  I’m still reeling from the no-pictures-thing, and some of the details escape me.  I gather up the wherewithal to sketch out this limited drawing, which quickly reveals why my sister was the art major in the family:

The next course is a four-fish dish.  First up is a Spanish mackerel tied with seaweed strips into a tidy bundle with roasted, pickled beets, freeze-dried soy, and radish greens.  The greens give a wasabi-like kick at the beginning, which is finished with pure salt.  Next is madeye, which I think is a type of Atlantic shad, tossed in Japanese kanzuri (pepper paste made with yuzu and water).  The “skin” is fried crisp and dotted with chives.  It has a clean, briny, citrus flavor.  I believe the third fish is a Connecticut fluke (also called summer flounder), but I’ve asked him to repeat himself a few times already, as it’s hard to hear over the kitchen sounds, and I feel like I’m annoying him.  It’s super soft has just enough kick before your mouth then hits the delicious black puffed rice and celery leaf it’s served with.  Finally, there’s a diver scallop with pineapple vinegar, pineapple grass (which Jesse and I both promptly describe as “dope”), fresh water chestnut, and dried ham.  The scallop is super creamy and soft.  The crunch of the water chestnut is a nice juxtaposition.  Jesse calls it “special.”  I think it tastes the way tucking in a baby feels: soft, gentle, and comforting.  My crude sketch follows:

Then it comes.  Santa Barbara umi just viscous enough to be solid and tasting like pure ocean.  It reminds me of fish Jell-O and is accompanied by an heirloom tomato, sesame seeds, and young myoga ginger.  Also plated is a dried sirloin tartare, which is salty, creamy, fatty and given a nutty, ocean flavor by more hackleback caviar.  Wildwood sorrel contributes sour acidity, and it’s served with a quail egg with horseradish.  The third item on the plate is sliced waygu beef with roasted leeks and scallions.  The waygu has a nice sear, and the leeks are subtle.  The texture is all meat, and the flavor is all leek.  The three proteins are served on a what looks like a pandan leaf:

We then get a mushroom salad that lines the center of a huge bowl.  The white cauliflower mushrooms that look like tripe and are complex and chewy turn out to be my favorite.  They’re like eating fireworks… or pop rocks, with an almost explosive texture.  There are also king oyster, black trumpet, maitake, chantarelle, and yellowfoot mushrooms in a pickled jalapeno puree with cilantro and pickled red onion.  The initial endorphin rush from the jalapeno puree gives me a buzz more intense than that from the wine, but I have to give up on this dish.  It’s just too spicy for me.

I’m starting to get full when the smell of bacon wafts over.  In a huge, round bowl, we get a puffed chicken egg in a pool of bacon broth and sprinkled with shiokombu kelp, which is meaty and salty.  The egg is airy, foamy, and incredibly soft, achieved by making an egg puree not unlike scrambled eggs and mixing it with cellulose.  There’s really no need to even chew.  The bacon flavor comes in as an aftertaste.  It’s served with a spoon and an oil-soaked English muffin with chives and the herbed aftertaste of sausage.  Jesse says it’s like “the egg in egg drop soup.”  I think it’s a super-hearty nod to breakfast.

Next we get the climax of the meal: lamb cooked sous vide, which is salty, creamy, and soft with a beautifully crisp exterior, with krabi salad: Thai basil, sweet vinegar, and spicy fennel.  The lamb flavor is in the fat and the bone, and I happily pull the meat away.  On a separate plate, we have extraordinarily crisp haricot verts (green beans) with Chinese XO sauce (shrimp, scallop, chili, garlic) that has a meaty taste.  I wonder if there are anchovies, maybe citrus rind, and some other spices but am afraid to ask.  This course also comes with a cold soup composed of brown broth with pea sprouts, perfectly round cucumber balls, and mustard oil.  There are spicy mustard greens as well.  Salty and spicy, the soup had great texture and flavors.  This dish was the pinnacle of the meal and probably the only one I really enjoyed.

We get a big bowl of sweet corn ravioli with chorizo, cotija cheese, picked tomatoes, scallions, lime zest, and sour cream.  This dish has a totally different feeling than everything that’s come before it; I find myself puzzling over how it fits in the succession.  I shrug, stop thinking, and dig in.  First, I get cream, then the sweet corn with lime, followed by the salt of the chorizo, then a round heat underneath.  Although it has all the things that should make it great: sweet, salt, cream, spice, it feels like the denouement has begun.

Another fish couse: a cube of warm, buttery, soft roast halibut nestled onto pepperonici puree amd served with Chinese mustard greens, and a tiny dice of stout kohlrabi, aromatic shiso, and the seemingly-omnipresent, oh-so-fashionable herb-of-the-week, chervil.  The halibut is crisp on top… very hearty, meaty, and earthy with a little spice.  All in all, it’s very comforting.  Probably my second favorite dish of the afternoon but not at all in my top ten.

And then comes Chang’s signature dish… the one he supposedly can’t take off the menu because it’s so popular.  Shaved foie gras with a riesling gelee, lychees, and pine nut brittle served in a big, space-pod-like, U-shaped bowl.  I respect the innovation of shaving foie gras over the dish, and it’s a good foie gras with all the filling salty, buttery deliciousness foie gras should have and, thankfully, minus its Silly-Putty-esque appearance and texture.  From the riesling gelee, which is technically interesting, I expect sweet and get bitter instead.  The sweet comes from the lychee, which adds great bite, and the brittle, which adds salt, sweet, and crunch.  The biggest success on the plate (other than the idea of reinventing foie gras by means of shaving) is the pine nut brittle.  The whole thing piques my interest, but it’s still not what I’d call good.

Things start to go downhill when we get a deep fried short rib cooked sous vide with Korean-style marinade.  It’s flavorful, but tastes alarmingly like my grandmother’s brisket. It has a soft, crisp skin but it’s dry, and Jesse and I are looking at each other and not saying the same thing: “What the hell??? It was cooked sous vide.”  Also on the plate is eggplant two ways: (1) roasted Japanese eggplant wrapped like a package in a seaweed band with red miso and a tiny dice of rosé-pickled shallots and rosé-pickled watermelon (2) softly charred, roasted fairytale eggplant with wild-foraged greens from Maine (the concept of which I love).

And then the deconstructed ice cream soda that made things worse.  In an ear-shaped bowl, we were presented with onion lavender ice cream, which sounded so promising.  And it was… absolutely sweet, herbaceous, and wonderful.  But it was sitting on top of bubbly onion seltzer, which made the dish medicinal and gauzy.  It tasted the way a grandmother’s closet smells… like walking in and stuffing your mouth with Granny’s nightgown sleeve.  I avoided the seltzer as long as I could, then pushed the dish toward the edge of the counter like the young girl in the Sandra Cisneros story “Eleven.”

Then another dessert in a basket-like bowl with a wide rim: forbidden rice crusted coconut cream (the rice is cooked normally, dried in a dehydrator, and powdered with a spice grinder), passionfruit curd, bananas foster gastrique, and toasted coconut on the bottom.  The coconut cream wasn’t overly sweet, but I loved the texture of the rice.  I also found the passionfruit overwhelming.

I was pretty much ready to go, but there was a mandarin orange granita with black sesame streusel, buttery dehydrated almond shortbread, and Thai basil.  Huh? The shortbread was good.  Even though it had interesting elements: citrus, nut, butter, herb… I just didn’t get how they fit together.  To me, it seemed discordant.

As the chefs cleaned up and prepared for the dinner seating, we tried once again to strike up a rapport with Chef Grump.  The folks down at the end of the bar were exchanging handshakes and laughter with their chef, and I couldn’t help but wonder how different the experience would have been had we sat there.

“This kitchen seems so laid back,” I note.  “Would you say it’s less stressful than other kitchens?”

Chef GrumpFactor either doesn’t hear me or is ignoring me.

“Okaaaaay,” my voice is low, embarrassed.

Mercifully, Jesse repeats my question, and Chef Hipster Glasses answers wryly.  “It’s more stressful.”


” ‘ Cause I can’t scream at these guys,” he points to his colleagues.  The dynamics of the kitchen are tight, and it’s a small space.  It’s a fascinating thing to open the kitchen up, but one can’t help but feel that the chefs are on a schedule and that asking questions interferes with their timing and precision.  At least, that’s the impression I got.  The chef also shares with us that there are eight supporting cooks downstairs, a space riddled with nooks and crannies and meters for other buildings.

The hostess presents small glasses of Brooklyn artisanal tonic water as a digestif, and Jesse and I both leave most of it sitting on the bar.  We were sent away with two parting gifts: a jar of pickled vegetables (kimchi) and something like onigiri: a small nori-wrapped triangle of rice with kimchi vegetables inside, folded up in white paper with blue tape.  The latter, simple as it was, became my new favorite part of the meal.

As we make our way to the train, I’m a little nervous to tell my husband how much the meal cost… even more so because I feel decidedly that it wasn’t worth the cost of admission. I pick up a coarse-sugar-crusted sour cherry and thyme scone from the green market and think, “This is more my speed.” Although I’m glad for the experience and respect the technique, the balls-out audacity, and the singularity of vision I’ve been witness to,  I get on the 6 train uptown wondering how much longer David Chang has to ride the glorious bubble.